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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 2245

Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (13:03): This has been a passionate debate. Debates in this place regarding the regulation of workplaces usually result in raised voices and furrowed brows but the fact which has been overlooked in this debate and which will inject some sense into this debate is that these bills deliver on an election commitment made by Labor prior to 2010. We committed to the Australian people that, if elected, we would place some of the powers of the Office of the Building and Construction Industry Commissioner into Fair Work Australia and create and Fair Work Australia Building Industry Inspectorate. It is part of a reform process that restores fairness, justice and equity to Australian workplaces. We are delivering on the commitment made to the Australian people prior to the 2007 and 2010 federal elections. That fact cannot be escaped by those opposite. We are delivering a reform agenda that provides fairness and equity in Australian workplaces.

The building and construction industry in Australia is a crucial sector of our economy. The jobs the industry generates have flow-on effects throughout our entire economy. A new building is not just about the bricks and mortar that go into its construction; a new building is about jobs, growth and productivity. The building and construction industry helped our nation through the worst of the global financial crisis. The hard work of the employees in the sector, coupled with this government's Nation Building and Jobs Plan, ensured that the Australian economy remained strong while the rest of the world faltered. Yes, employees in this sector are often union members but they are hardworking and dedicated. Unfortunately, as usual, when it comes to regulations providing fairness and equity in workplaces, those opposite oppose them because of their blind negativity and because they want to see the continued use of unjustified and unfair laws against construction workers—laws under which employees can be gaoled for simply attending a union meeting or for simply refusing to be interrogated by the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner without a lawyer present, laws under which employees lose rights which every other employee in our community takes for granted, rights which are a symbol of our democracy. They are simple rights that we all expect to be afforded to us when confronted with complicated legal issues—simple rights that were taken away by the Howard government in its relentless attack on the rights of workers and trade unions in this country. And those simple rights are always on the chopping block when the Liberal and National parties come to government and enforce their ideological bent against workers and their terms and conditions of employment.

On 31 March 2009, retired Federal Court Judge Murray Wilcox delivered his report to the government on matters relating to the building and construction industry and the inspectorate. This bill gives effect to the principal recommendations contained in the Wilcox report. The bill at its core is about putting balance back into the building and construction industry, to provide a framework for cooperative and constructive relations between employers and employees and at the same time provide fairness and justice for building workers in this sector. It is a framework that will allow employers, employees and unions to constructively engage in enterprise level negotiations and, as the title of the bill suggests, make a transition to a Fair Work system. The bill will ensure that information, advice and assistance are always available to everyone involved in the building industry, meaning that employers and employees know their rights and responsibilities and all aspects of relevant laws.

The current Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner is a body that needs to be replaced with a new entity that is part of the Fair Work system. The bill will replace the ABCC with the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate. This inspectorate will provide the bedrock for constructive industrial relations in the building and construction industry. The bill provides effective means for investigating and enforcing relevant workplace laws whilst at the same time balancing the rights of building industry participants through the provision of appropriate safeguards in relation to the use of the building inspectorate's enforcement powers.

That means that the new inspectorate division will still have wide-ranging powers to investigate unlawful activity but, importantly, the people involved in the investigations will have reasonable legal protections whilst they are investigated and recourse if they are unfairly treated. This is a simple measure that will mean that people who work in any aspect of the building and construction industry can no longer be hauled down to the ABCC office and be forced into interrogation without the ability to request legal representation.

Australia is a democracy, a country that cherishes liberty, justice and fairness for all. Our workplace laws must reflect these principles no matter what industry a person chooses to work in. This bill contains those relevant protections and principles.

The bill also contains an amendment passed by the House of Representatives that will prevent the director or an inspector of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate from commencing or continuing civil legal proceedings in a court where the matter of the subject of the hearings is reasonably and appropriately settled and discontinued by parties other than the inspectorate. This is consistent with civil practices under the civil law jurisdiction in this country. This provision means that those involved in the building industry are not subject to multiple proceedings in relation to matters that have already been discontinued and settled.

A critical test of this legislation is whether or not it strikes the right balance and whether or not it promotes growth and productivity in the building industry. But also the Senate needs to consider, in examining this legislation, whether or not workers engaged in the building industry will have fairness in their workplaces. It needs to consider whether the industrial umpire, Fair Work Australia, backed up by the building industry inspectorate will ensure that workers' rights and employers' rights are fairly and appropriately administered throughout the building sector. This bill does just that.

The new Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate will be headed by an independent director appointed by the minister. The director will manage the operations of the inspectorate and will not be subject to oversight or control by other statutory office holders. Importantly, the bill also creates an advisory board to make recommendations to the director on the policies and priorities of the building industry inspectorate. The board will be made up of key industry stakeholders.

The building industry inspectorate will enforce the building industry's compliance with the general law as prescribed in the Fair Work Act. While building participants will be subject to the same penalties as other workers, Mr Wilcox recommended that the need to retain the existing coercive examination powers was proven, and the bill does just that. Those coercive powers will be maintained for a period of three years, at which time the powers will sunset, subject to a review of their operation.

The significant safeguards associated with the use of the powers also included in the bill are, firstly, that the use of the powers is dependent upon a presidential member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal being satisfied that a case has been made for their use; and, secondly, that persons who are required to attend an interview may be represented by a lawyer of their choice, and their right to claim legal privilege and public interest immunity will be recognised. Those fundamental human rights that we cherish as a democracy will be restored to building workers in this country. Thirdly, persons required to attend an interview will be reimbursed for reasonable expenses and, fourthly, all interviews will be videotaped and undertaken by the director or an SES employee. Fifthly, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, importantly, will monitor and review all interviews and provide reports to the parliament on the exercise of this power. And sixthly, as I said earlier, the powers will be subject to an appropriate sunset period after three years. These protections that are built into the use of the coercive powers are fair and reasonable and ensure that those unfair practices that have occurred in the past will no longer occur in the Australian building and construction industry.

Not content with attacking workers' rights throughout the term of the Howard government, in this debate the coalition seems destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. Constant attacks on the Australian union movement and the hardworking men and women who choose to be trade unionists and members benefit no-one, and they certainly add nothing to the public debate.

This legislation restores fairness and equity to Australian building workers whilst at the same time promoting growth and productivity in a vitally important sector of our economy. On that basis, the legislation must pass the Senate, and I commend it to the chamber.